US Jews in turmoil over violence in Israel. American Jews in turmoil. SPEAKING OUT
Washington — Anguish. Frustration. Sympathy. Sadness. You can hear it in their voices. You can read it in their columns and advertisements.
With the uprising of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories in its 12th week, the turmoil in American Jewry is deepening.
For almost 40 years, Israel has stood as a symbol of refuge and survival for the world's 17 million Jews. Although support for the Jewish state has not diminished, the spectacle of Israeli soldiers beating and killing Palestinians has, in the view of some American Jews, compromised the high ideals upon which Israel was founded.
For Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, the past 12 weeks have posed the greatest challenge to him yet as an activist for Jewish and Israeli causes.
``Yes, we're anguishing, but we're not spending all of our energy anguishing,'' Mr. Bookbinder says. ``We're trying to help Americans understand why there are riots.... Don't point the finger of blame at Israel alone.''
American Jews - especially those who are more politically liberal - have never been more vocal in their debate of Israeli policy.
THE first real breaks in the silence came in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and grew wider with the Iran-contra affair and the Pollard spy case. Last October, before the Palestinian uprising began, the left-of-center American Jewish Congress publicly declared its support for an international conference on Mideast peace, the first time a major American Jewish organization had adopted a position on such a divisive issue as Israeli security.
The trend toward open debate angers some US Jewish leaders, who say the criticism fuels the arguments of Israel's en-emies and could erode overall American support for Israel. Other leaders counter that the debate is a sign that the Israel-diaspora relationship is maturing.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the leader of Reform Judaism, has been one of the most vocal critics of Israeli policy.
``Israel is not just the possession of the Israelis, it's the possession of the Jewish people,'' he says. ``What happens to Israel affects all of us. So we have the duty to speak up. We don't serve them well when we tell them what they want to hear.''
Bookbinder says the debate over the right to debate is an empty one. ``The fact of debating the issue is itself in the public domain,'' he says. ``And what the other side of the argument seems to be saying is `hey, we have a serious problem, but let's not admit it.' They're not helping to keep it under cover by saying that....
``The clich'e is still true: For every three Jews you get four opinions, and they're all going to be expressed,'' Bookbinder says. ``And there's nothing wrong with that, unless you express them without adequate context and compassion and understanding.''
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, agrees that American Jews have the right to debate events in Israel, but to do so publicly is irresponsible. ``We don't pay the consequences of the expression of that opinion,'' he says. ``I don't think it's productive to publicly criticize Israel's actions. When you criticize from the outside, they usually go the other way.''
Not that American Jewish leaders are not telling the Israelis what they think. This week a delegation from the Confer-ence of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is in Israel for its annual visit. Palestinian unrest is high on the agenda. In January, Morris Abram, president of the conference, reportedly had a ``tough discussion'' with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. And last month, the conference reportedly spent several days in heated debate over the wording of a statement that would adequately reflect the unhappiness with Israeli actions some of the members feel.
Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, cites three factors that have encouraged open criticism by Jews:
The Reagan administration's strong support of Israel and reluctance to criticize Israeli actions. Israel has never had such solid support in the White House, which affords American Jews the opportunity to criticize Israeli actions without fear that such criticism could undermine overall US support for Israel. The internal nature of Israel's current crisis. Israel does not face an Arab army that has crossed into its land. The crisis is more over the future organization of the state, and American Jews feel there's less of a threat to the security of Israel.
The divisions within the Israeli government and public itself. If the Israelis can disagree, why can't we? ask American Jews. Members of the Labor Party and the Likud bloc, which constitute Israel's government, have lobbied in the US for Jewish support of their policies. Labor leader and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has been encouraging US Jews to speak out.
Another factor is that Jews are increasingly feeling accepted by non-Jewish society, and are therefore less reluctant to speak out, says Ronald Young of the US Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East. The organization was recently formed in an effort to get Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders together to rally grass-roots support and signal Washington that Mideast peace is urgent.
Underlying the debate among American Jews is an abiding deep love and devotion to Israel. Recent opinion polls have uniformly shown continued support for the existence of Israel. And fund raising for Israeli causes has shown its usual increase. From last September to Feb. 11, United Jewish Appeal, the main Jewish fund-raising organization, raised almost $390 million, half of which will go to Israel for nongovernmental humanitarian programs. That's a 12 percent increase over last year. In Los Angeles, the recent ``Super Sunday'' fund drive raised $3.4 million, double last year's total.
``There is a tradition in the American Jewish community to react to a crisis by giving money,'' says Martin Gallanter, director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which helps fund hostels and nonmilitary benefits for Israeli soldiers. In the first few weeks after the unrest started, his organization saw a 15 to 18 percent increase in giving.
Some Jews say it's too soon to answer the fund-raising question. US Jews are rallying financially behind Israel because it is beleaguered, they say, but if the unrest continues unabated, Jews might start voting with their pocketbooks.
Some American Jews are already donating their money in a way that speaks directly against the Israeli occupation by giving to the American branch of Israel's anti-occupation organization, Peace Now. Mark Rosenbloom, head of American Friends of Peace Now, says membership has jumped since the uprising began, from 12,000 to 20,000, and donations have doubled: In the past three months, the group has raised between $140,000 and $150,000, more than half the amount it usually raises in a year. Mr. Rosenbloom adds that he and his office have received threats of physical violence.
The unrest has highlighted the evolving nature of the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. Among the generations that are too young to remember the Holocaust firsthand, the connection to Israel is sometimes not as visceral. ``I'm seeing a greater questioning of Israeli actions among Jews under 45,'' says Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a magazine started two years ago as a liberal antidote to Commentary. The older, established American Jewish organizations are having trouble ``making a serious beachhead in the under-40 generation,'' he says, adding that 85 percent of his readers are under 45.
Tom Smerling, a Washington foreign-affairs consultant, cautions against oversimplifying the link between age and Israel.
``Part of being Jewish is never to be sure of our continued physical existence,'' he says. ``The Holocaust was the culmination of the assault on Jews, but hardly any of us feel it's the end of abuse of Jews.... Still, in terms of opinion, younger Jews tend to be less afraid of the risks for peace.''
Professor Spiegel doesn't agree that youth necessarily equals more criticism of Israel or more liberal views. ``A lot of the older Jews who identify with Labor are being very critical,'' he says, ``while some of the younger people, who grew up with Likud in power, are more conservative.''
The unrest has also heightened longstanding tensions between Israel and some diaspora Jews. ``Once again, the Israelis have put US Jews in a tough position,'' says a Jewish writer living in Washington. ``Some Israelis resent American Jews for choosing the easy life and not living in Israel. They say, `You don't know what it's like to live in fear.' I resent that pressure.''
Tikkun editor Michael Lerner is worried about other trends in the US Jewish community. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not affiliated with an official Jewish organization he has found a growing anger with the Jewish community for not speaking out forcefully enough.
``There is a growing alienation [among unaffiliated Jews] from the Jewish world that worries me deeply,'' he says. ``For the first time, the number of people who are willing to listen to anti-Zionist critiques is very high.''
Lerner also says his readers have told him they're hearing some latent anti-Semitism reaching the surface. ``But it's not based on the fact that Jews are criticizing Israel. It's what they're seeing on TV.''
What we're seeing on TV has emerged as another sore point. Night after night, the networks have brought into living rooms images of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians, and some Jewish leaders are crying bias. Cameramen are not focusing on the hours of Palestinian rock- and Molotov-cocktail-throwing that precede the Israeli retaliations, American Jews say, adding that the sight of cameramen often acts as a catalyst for disturbances.
A Mexican Jew living in Manhattan recently bought a full-page ad in the New York Times so he could counter what he feels is distorted media presentation. In Israel, some right-wing Cabinet ministers have suggested that the government ban the media from the occupied territories to allow tensions to cool, a view echoed by some American Jews.
Hyman Bookbinder sees his role as a leader in the American Jewish community being to add the context that a 45-second news story cannot possibly provide.
Israel's unique position - as the only democracy in the Middle East and the only Western-oriented country whose entire territory is claimed by another people - puts it in a tough spot, he says. Israel is also challenged by its dual identity as the embodiment of a dream and as a functioning nation.
``One of the most quoted descriptions of what Israel aspires to be, and what it has to a large extent fulfilled, is to be `a light unto the nations,''' he says. ``But people have also got to understand that Israel is a state, and [as such] it must do certain things, like putting down rebellions, like collecting garbage, like taxing people.''
Some analysts have mentioned the potential role of the American Jewish community, with its formidable lobbying skills, in getting the peace process going. Jewish community leaders make sure the White House, State Department, and Congress are aware of their feelings on policy matters that affect Israel.
But other analysts doubt the Jewish community can be the decisive factor. Because of moves by Greece and Spain to close US bases, as well as the fall of the Shah in Iran, Israel's strategic importance to the US has grown, diminishing the role of US Jewish opinion in formulating policy.
``Certainly if the Jewish community had been against [Secretary of State George] Shultz's trip to the Middle East, he would have thought twice about going,'' a State Department official says. ``But their opinion is only one of many factors.''
The longer-term future holds many wild cards: the orientations of new US and Israeli governments, as well as the strategy of the Palestine Liberation Organization. What is certain, many American Jews say, is that the status quo in Israel has permanently changed. The relatively docile occupation of Arab lands is a thing of the past, they say - and so, too, is the pervasiveness of the declaration ``Israel right or wrong.''